Two decades ago, Jack Lemmon was asked on a television talk show who he considered to be the greatest actor in the world.
Without hesitating, Mr. Lemmon related a story about a time early in his career when he was a theater usher in New York City. He worked at the very theater where a young sensation named Marlon Brando was turning the acting world on its ear in "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Each night, Mr. Lemmon says, he watched in awe the work of the greatest actor in the world.
Mr. Lemmon is reminded of the story and then is asked the same question he was posed 20 years ago. This time he hesitates. He thinks a moment and then shakes his head.
"The reason I hesitated is that I've changed my mind," says Mr. Lemmon, whom many consider to be one of the greatest actors in the world. His latest effort is a re-teaming with Walter Matthau in "Grumpy Old Men," which opens Christmas Day.
"I still think Marlon is wonderful. But the more I've seen over the years, the more I've come to realize that there is no such thing as the greatest actor in the world. There are a great many actors who, at the right time in their lives with the right part, can turn in a performance that can't be topped."
In fact, Mr. Lemmon, 68, has turned in so many performances that can't be topped, he has been nominated eight times for Academy Awards, winning for "Mister Roberts" and "Save the Tiger." He is the only actor to win two best-actor awards at the Cannes Film Festival ("The China Syndrome" and "Missing"). And in 1988, he was given the American Film Institute's prestigious lifetime achievement award.
But the Boston-born, Harvard-educated actor is destined to be remembered less for his award-winning dramatic roles than for his comedy -- specifically, his comedic work with Mr. Matthau, a longtime friend.
The two men met more than 30 years ago -- Mr. Matthau says they met in a delicatessen, Mr. Lemmon says it was in a bar --
and worked together for the first time in "The Fortune Cookie" in 1966.
They worked together five more times, including "Kotch," in which Mr. Matthau acted and Mr. Lemmon directed.
In "Grumpy Old Men," their first pairing in more than a decade, Mr. Lemmon and Mr. Matthau play best friends and neighbors who have loved and hated each other for 56 years. They curse each other, pull pranks on each other and generally cause mayhem in each other's lives. Just like best friends.
Then into their lives comes an attractive and dynamic new neighbor (Ann-Margret), who turns their bickering into a real jealousy-fueled feud.
"A script like this doesn't come down the pike too often," Mr. Lemmon says. "I can't tell you how many times people have come to us with an idea, only there was no script. They were hoping Walter and I would say yes first and then they could get the project started on our say-so.
"Well, we waited 10 years for this one, and it was worth the wait."
"He's my favorite actor, and the funniest man I know," says Mr. Lemmon, who says he and his co-star are as close as brothers. Their wives also are best friends, he says. "But he strikes me funnier than I strike him." Mr. Lemmon says Mr. Matthau never lets up, even during rehearsals. "He'd be screaming at me in rehearsals that we've made a terrible mistake and that this movie will ruin our careers and that's it's all my fault.
"Then when we're actually filming and I'm ready to do my lines in front of the camera, he'll walk over to me and whisper in my ear, 'This is a piece of [bleep]!' How am I supposed to say my lines after that?"
Mr. Lemmon, who does a perfect Matthau impersonation when telling the stories, says he has tried to analyze why the screen pairing works but has been unable to come up with any definitive reasons for its success.
"It's like there's me and then there's Walter and there's this third thing when we're together. Something happens when we're together and it's a natural thing. It's like the hair color you're born
with. It's just something that is."